June 6, 2023

Remembering Acts of Intrepidity

We neglect our heritage if we do not remember and pass on the history of ordinary men who did extraordinary things in service to us.

By Mark W. Fowler

Intrepid: “characterized by resolute fearlessness, fortitude, and endurance” (Merriam-Webster dictionary).

Mr. John Falkenbury, executive vice president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, has the responsibility of preserving the history of the Medal of Honor. He will gently remind you that the proper nomenclature is “Medal of Honor,” and the honorees are recipients, not winners. It is not a competition, nor is this a linguistic trifle, as the Medal of Honor is given only to select individuals who have demonstrated courage and self-sacrifice above and beyond the call of duty warranting the same reverence as is evoked at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Walter Ehlers, a recipient, agreed.

Throughout the course of American history, over one million individuals in the Armed Services have lost their lives in combat serving this country — serving us, our predecessors, and descendants of every race and circumstance so we might live free. They, in turn, were of all races and circumstances.

Summer in America means the observation of Memorial Day; the anniversary of June 6 (D-Day); the anniversary of Independence Day (July 4); and the anniversary of the end of World War II with the surrender of the Japanese on August 15. It is a time of baseball, barbecues, travel, and leisure. We neglect our heritage if we do not remember and pass on the history of ordinary men who did extraordinary things in service to us individually so that we might live free.

June 6, 1944 — D-Day — found Walter Ehlers of Manhattan, Kansas, on a Higgins boat along with his fellow soldiers of the 18th Infantry, First Division. He was part of the second wave. Crossing the beach into the teeth of machine gun fire from four pill boxes, he led his squad across the beach, and then into the trenches capturing a pill box.

A video of Mr. Ehlers reveals a modest man, but underneath that patina of modesty is iron resolve. He and his brother agreed that if they fought together and found the other wounded, they would press on and continue to fight the enemy, leaving behind the wounded brother.

Ehlers was both resolute and fearless. The account of his actions is stunning. Summarizing from his Medal of Honor citation, on the 9th and 10th of June, while acting as the spearhead of his squad, he “repeatedly led his men against heavily defended enemy positions exposing himself to deadly hostile fire whenever the situation required heroic and courageous leadership.” He killed four Germans he encountered while on patrol. Then he attacked a machine gun nest, taking that out. He attacked and disabled two mortar positions while under heavy machine gun fire, killing three more Germans. He next advanced on another machine gun eliminating that position.

On the 10th, facing untenable machine gun and mortar fire, he organized the withdrawal of his squad by exposing himself to fire allowing them to withdraw. His automatic rifleman was injured during this melee. Ehlers pulled him out of danger and returned to get the man’s automatic rifle, sustaining a wound himself. Ehlers had his wound treated and returned to the fight to lead his squad. His citation concludes with, “The indomitable courage, and fearless aggressiveness displayed by S/Sgt Ehlers in the face of overwhelming enemy forces serve as an inspiration to others.”

Such is the epitome of American exceptionalism. Remember that he, and thousands of others like him, left home and loved ones not for glory or treasure or power but to overthrow the tyranny of evil men. We should so order our lives to honor their sacrifice and selflessness.

One month after D-Day, Walter Ehlers learned that his brother, Roland, lost his life on June 6, 1944, on the beach at Normandy when his Higgins boat sustained a direct hit on the ramp. Walter referred to Roland as a hero.

These are but two of many to whom we owe our freedom today.

Mark W. Fowler is a former attorney and board-certified family physician. He may be reached at [email protected].

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